The trade union UNISON has recently voted that any future ballots on potential higher education industrial action will be disaggregated.
UNISON represents many higher education support workers, including those in administration, IT, cleaning, catering, facilities, security, libraries, sports centres, students' unions, and laboratory services.
UNISON balloted its higher education members for strike action in 2019, over a meagre, below-inflation average sector pay rise. The ballot, which took place from 9th September to 30th October, saw around 66% of those who took part voting for action. However, the turnout did not reach the restrictive 50% threshold required by the Trade Union Act 2016. At the time, UNISON's head of higher education Ruth Levin commented:
Yet again, the anti-trade union laws have stopped our members being able to take action in pursuit of an improved pay offer. With the real-term value of pay having fallen behind over the past 10 years, this is an unjust situation. University support staff are working harder and harder, yet their pay is failing to keep up.
At UNISON's 2020 Higher Education Conference on 16th January, members carried a motion to disaggregate future ballots. This means that the 50% turnout requirement will no longer be a national requirement, but instead will be required at a branch level. Motivated and organised branches will therefore be more likely to go on strike in the future.
The tactic has so far been effective for the University and College Union (UCU), which represents academics, academic-related staff, and senior professional services staff. For example, Lancaster UCU had a 73.4% turnout for strike action in 2018, and 57.2% turnout in 2019, both above the legal threshold.
There is even an argument, which has been made by Scottish higher education trade union activists Grant Buttars and Nick Cimini, that disaggregated ballots can strengthen the union:
Disaggregated ballots forced lay union members themselves to take responsibility for getting the vote out. It meant that rank and file members needed to knock on doors, engage directly with their colleagues and not just depend upon a campaign run from headquarters by trade union officials. It is perhaps an unintended and very welcome consequence of the Trade Union Act that forcing members to meet these thresholds could ultimately make the trade union movement stronger.
Spineless hopes that the new rules will mean Lancaster University UNISON branch will be able to better stand up for its members in future national disputes.